Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

From the 1963 Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit
It is Thanksgiving morning.  It is early and my little part of the world is quite still.  It is a good time to reflect on this day.

First and foremost, a most Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Enjoy the day with family, with friends, or by yourself.

When I was young, this was a national holiday.  Almost everyone had the day off.  There were no businesses open and the streets so lightly trafficked that the business and shopping districts seemed like ghost towns.  It was even hard to find a gas station that was open.  People and businesses took the notion of Thanksgiving being a National Holiday seriously.  It was simply the way things were done.

Sometimes the auto factories were open and people had to work.  Sales had to be robust for this to occur, however, to justify the double time they had to pay on a holiday.  There were football games that included some long standing high school rivalries.  In Detroit, the Lions always played on Thanksgiving.  Growing up, they would play the Green Bay Packers.  Those two teams will square off again later today.

Mostly Thanksgiving was about family.  I remember it as a hybrid holiday.  We had an Armenian style American Thanksgiving.  We would gather at my maternal Grandmother's who would prepare a bountiful Armenian and American feast.  We were with my mother's side of the family in Detroit.  There were eight cousins that were delighted to see each other and have fun at each and every holiday.  Ours was no different than many other families and it was all good.  Our Thanksgivings in Detroit were closer to the tone and tenor of midwest as portrayed in iconic movie, A Christmas Story. 

Today we are driving from Illinois to my sister Ani and her husband Jeff's  house.  They have taken over having Thanksgiving in their home.  Being a car aficionado and collector, he was a four car garage that is like a showroom.  They move the cars out and set tables to accommodate the fifty or extended family that they invite.  It is the new and most enjoyable Thanksgiving tradition that everyone enjoys and looks forward to.

When we lived in Wilton, Connecticut, Thanksgivings had much more of an "over the river and through the woods" ambiance.  Wilton, in large parts, was what one might imagine a Currier and Ives town to have evolved to in our times.  It was, after all, New England.  It was wooded, hilly, with both rivers and streams.  There were plenty of reminders of colonial days if one was attuned to such.  

I recall meeting a lady approximately my age.  Our daughters were classmates in middle school at the time.  We were at a orchestra concert and were talking before the concert started.  I came to learn that she was a lifelong resident of Wilton as were her parents and grandparents.  That put here in an extremely small demographic as almost everyone else I met seemed to be from someplace else.   I asked her what Wilton was like in her childhood.  She said it was very rural.  The town was mostly dirt roads.  The Wilton of her youth was in the last days of its farming past.  She paused a moment and then added that she fondly remembers riding her horse from her parents home to her grandmother's house one Thanksgiving in the late 1960s.  How cool was that.  Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house indeed.

Things change and they don't change.  Older traditions fade out and newer ones... well newer ones seem rise and take hold faster.  There are cool new traditions with the Turkey Trot 10K runs that most communities have.  This allows folks to burn calories and then have a healthy dinner rather than just overeat.

On the other hand, shopping seems to have encroached on this holiday.  It seems like every retail store is open.  They have door buster sales that begin at all kinds of odd hours.  It is crazy but people take advantage of it and it has become a new Thanksgiving tradition for many.  In this respect, it could not be any different than the ghost town days I referred to in the beginning of this piece.  We will be driving soon to Michigan with no worries about finding open gas stations.  Land for Brave, Home of the Free to spend your money.  

While I will not be hitting any door buster Thanksgiving sales today or the remainder of the weekend, I will keep asking my nieces and nephews "Who wants to go to Wal Mart?  Come on let's all go."  That is a Thanksgiving tradition I have kind of started.

So whatever it is you do... enjoy.  Do take some time to be thankful and appreciative of what you have.  The most precious of what any of have, and maybe do not note nearly enough, is each other.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 2013: Reflecting on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Sometimes I am not sure what my monthly letter will be about.  In September, a topic did not emerge.  I ended up doing a potpourri and titled it September 2013: Musing and Meandering Along.  That does not happen often.  Certainly, it is not the case this month. 

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which happened on November 22, 1963.

I was ten years old at the time and in the fifth grade.  I was old enough to really begin to realize the importance of the President of the country. During the election, I was seven years old and old enough to say I was for Nixon at school because that is who my parents were voting for.   I was old enough to appreciate the fascination the country was experiencing with this charismatic president, his charming wife, and their two cuter than cute children.  They were all photogenic and it seems their photos were everywhere.  He had a great accent that was lovable.  He had a boyish charm and enviable level of education.  He was a role model for a ten year old kid for sure.  People talked about him been Catholic but that seemed normal to me as many of the students in my elementary school were Catholic.

It was a horrible shock when he was killed.  It was an aftershock when his accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down on live TV by Jack Ruby.  I remember actually seeing that.  There has been a non-stop debate about various conspiracy theories ever since.  For people who lived through it, the assassination is one of those moments that everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they found out.  These kind of shocking history changing events are like that Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the death of Princess Diana are all like that.

So, where was I on that fateful day?  Like this year, November 22, 1963 fell on a Friday.  It was the Friday before Thanksgiving.  I was at Burns Elementary School in the City of Detroit.  The President was shot at 1:30 pm EST and declared dead at 2 pm.  I heard the news shortly thereafter.  I remember being in gym class.  A girl in the class asked if we had heard the news.  What news?  “Someone shot Kennedy with an elephant gun!”  I was stunned. I immediately wondered how and why someone would shoot Douglas Kennedy?  My classmate, Douglas Kennedy, was not in school that day and I assumed this shocking news was about him.  Douglas Kennedy was a good guy and kind of a friend.  He was a slight fellow and I just could not believe that anyone would shoot him let alone shoot him with an elephant gun of all things.

What can I say?  I was ten and I was thinking locally and not on a broader scale.  There was a temporary sense of relief when I realized that it was the President who had been shot and killed and not my friend.  That sense of relief was very short lived as I saw how everyone around me, in my family, and the media were reacting to the tragic event.  At the time, I felt pretty stupid for making that error.  It was not well into my adulthood that I realized it was an innocent error.   

As the weekend unfolded, the nation was in total shock.  It was the news on all of the channels.  In Detroit, we had a whopping four channels ABC, NBC, CBS, and a station, CKLW, from Windsor, Ontario.  It must be noted that the television stations were not 24/7 in those days.  In 2003, I was watching a special on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. The show I was watching showed footage of Walter Cronkite reflecting on the events of that sad and shocking day. Cronkite was pointed out that it was 11:40 pm and they had stayed on the air 10 minutes past their normal broadcast day because of the gravity of the events.  He said that they would pick-up the coverage in the morning and wished everyone a good night.

I saw another documentary the on the eve of the anniversary:  Four Days in November.  This film was released on November 21, 1964, one year after the assassination.   Per IMDb :

From more than eight million feet of newsreels, amateur footage, tape-recordings and more, David L. Wolper presents a priceless detailed account of the time and events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The documentary was beautifully and richly narrated by Richard Basshart.

It was very well done. It was a straightforward presentation of the facts that most people held true at the time.  Oswald killed Kennedy.  Two days later Jack Ruby killed Oswald.  There was extensive coverage of the funeral. There was no conspiracy theories floated, no Zapruder film, no CIA,  no Cubans, no Mafia, no Russian, no Marilyn Monroe, and Oliver Stone.  

John F. Kennedy was the first President of the United States that seemed to understand and take advantage of the relatively new media of television.  There is a general consensus that Kennedy was elected primarily because of the televised debates he had with then Vice-President Richard Nixon.  As much as the camera loved Kennedy, Nixon came off stiff, shifty, and not nearly as likable.  This might not have had an impact in previous elections but it did in that 1960 election and every election since then. 

From my youth, I did not know about the much of the politics of President Kennedy.  Other than the assassination, I remember three events that stood out in my mind back then.  First, I recall that in August 1963, Jackie gave birth to their youngest child, a son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.  Patrick died after two days.  It made me a little sad as I was young and believed things like that were not supposed to happen and they certainly weren't supposed to happen to such famous and special people.  It was something a nine year old could relate to.

Second was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I understood the basics of this crisis and the threat of having Soviet missiles ninety miles of our cost.  This was the first international crisis/issue I remember.  I was old enough to know it was important but also old enough to be curious about it.  The Cold War and Vietnam were just words to me before this crisis.  Cuba, Castro, Russia, and Khrushchev were just names to me.  With the Missile Crisis, they became threats.  It was a scary time of air raid drills in school and bomb shelters in the news.  The threat of war, and attack, coming to the American homeland was real enough to concern everyone.  The crisis dominated the airwaves and preempted, seemingly, all television as we only really had the three network channel compared to the hundreds of choices we have today. 

I was concerned, scared, and fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I tried to follow it the best I could.  I tried to listen to President Kennedy's press conferences and speeches but to no avail.  They were simply too long and the vocabulary beyond my grasp.  I did understand that we have missiles in Europe at the time that could strike Moscow and was admittedly a bit perplexed by the double standard.  I am still perplexed by the double standards such as this. 

Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wanted to know more about communism.  I knew it was bad and we were good but no one could really explain the differences in our capitalistic system versus communism.  So, I got an age appropriate book and learned about it.  Also, if we were going to be victims of atomic bombs, as we called them back then, I wanted to know about them.  I wanted to know who invented them, how they worked, and what made them so powerful.  This curiosity led to more books and a passion for physics which turned into a passion for mathematics that I have had ever since.

Thirdly, I get the impression that he was my President.  I felt I could write him and ask him things and that I would get an answer due to the helpful and engaging nature of my President and the Federal Government.  This memory is due to a Christmas gift in 1962.  It was a book of letters children had sent to President Kennedy.  Some were funny.  Some asked silly questions or made requests of the President that he could never consider fulfilling.  Then there were letters from young people, my age at the time looking for information about various federal programs.  I found these letters inspiring to the point that I sent President Kennedy two letters of my own.  I expressed my desire to learn more about the space program.  A few weeks later, a large manila envelope arrived from NASA. 

This package had a huge influence in my life.  I was mildly interested in the space program before getting the various books and booklets.  After getting this package from President Kennedy, I felt that it was my duty to read them and learn about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Missions the made up the race to the moon.  I was hooked and could not get enough of it.  Thank you Mr. President.  I was completely dedicated to him.  A few years later, I realized that President never saw my letter and therefore did not personally direct the folks at NASA to prepare that envelope for me.  It did matter; to this day I still think it was pretty special.  It does not seem like much when fifth graders today can simply go online and get any government publication available to the public.  These last two points make no difference to me.  I will always think it was something pretty special.

Oddly, I knew very little about the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam when Kennedy was President.  I did not quite understand what the Bay of Pigs or Vietnam were all about back then.   Compared to the above items, the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were grayer than the black and white, good and bad, in my ten year old world.

The Presidency of John F. Kennedy was and is referred to as Camelot.  This magical reference to King Arthur’s castle and court gave the Kennedy White House a nostalgic, mythic, and idealistic image.   I did not realize until fifty years later that this reference was coined by Jackie Kennedy herself… after the assassination.  Per The Guardian:

The name "Camelot" is such an accepted sobriquet for the Kennedy Administration that many don't recognize it as a creation of Jackie Kennedy's during a Life magazine interview following JFK's assassination.

 The power of his charisma and this image of Camelot made us all long for that ideal almost immediately after the assassination.  That longing has lasted for many of my generation until this day.  Consider the photo of the President chosen for this blog.  It is a photo taken by the famed Tony Spina a photographer for the Detroit Free Press.  Sonia Harlan, a family friend, posted this photo on Facebook earlier this week.  I knew immediately because of the nostalgia and longing for that return to Camelot that this is the photo I would use for this blog. 

The photo shows John F. Kennedy in Detroit.  At the time of the photo, Detroit was a vibrant industrial powerhouse of a city, the fourth or fifth largest city in the country.  In the fifty years since, the country has changed in size, demographics, economics, and technology.  The City of Detroit has changed even more and for the worse. 

It seems the days just before the assassination we were at the pinnacle of the post war bliss.  With the assassination, we all felt things changed and they in fact did.  In the years to come, the country would be in a war that made no sense and embroiled in the civil rights movement.  We experienced the generation gap, the hippie movement, the SDS, Black Panthers, race riots, and antiwar social unrest.  The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a prelude to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and his brother Bobby both in 1968.  It was almost like the assassination of John F. Kennedy was an inflection point in the history of this country.  Whether that is really true, it was certainly an inflection and reflection point in how I look at the history of this country.

If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated that fateful day fifty years ago, it would have been interesting to see what he might have accomplished as President, what he might have done after his term was over, and how we might be looking back on his life and career.  It is pure speculation which is how I view the various conspiracy theories as well.  If he were still alive today, he would be 96 years old.  When I think of John F. Kennedy, I think of the William Butler Yeats poem, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory where the Irish poet asked:

“What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wood Pencils

Last week, I was at North Park University and in my classroom well early for my 8 am class.  For the first time in the three months of teaching I noticed an old fashioned pencil sharpener on the wall across from my classroom.  I took a photo of it and posted in on Facebook with the message:  “They used to be everywhere. Literally Old School.”

Back in the day, when I was in grade school, the pencil was the most used writing tool for our school work.  Sure, we were required to have a pen but that was only for writing essays or themes. For everything else, we used a pencil and the #2 wooden pencil was the pencil specified in the school supply list.  Every classroom had a pencil sharpener.  While I could tolerate a duller pencil for handwriting, I preferred a sharp pencil for arithmetic so I definitely put the pencil sharpener to good use.

There were mechanical pencils back in those days, but they were horrible.  The only ones I had any experience with were the Scripto brand.  They had very thick leads and always wrote like a wooden pencil that was on the verge of needing sharpening.  The manufacturing tolerances were so loose that the lead was barely held in the pencil.  At least, this was my impression.   I was never impressed with the Scripto products even though they were probably the largest producer and seller of mechanical pencils in those days.   I simply preferred wooden pencils and a good sharpener.  

Wooden pencils we used back then came in a fixed color scheme. The lead, or graphite was blackish grey, the sharpened part of the wood was cedar colored, the pencil bodies were yellow, the ferrule (the metal cylinder that holds the eraser to the pencil body) was kind of golden, and the erasers were pink.  This was the school supply standard.  I recall we were asked to get two of them and they lasted the entire school year.  For me, the erasers always wore out before the pencil was too short to write with.  I loved those cap erasers which basically extended the useful life of the pencil.  Again, one of those cap erasers would last a couple of years.  When the pencil became too short, we would use one of those in our compasses.

These days wooden pencils are bought by the dozens for the standard.  They can be personalized.  The come in a variety of colors that range from bare wood to a wide variety of colors including metallic and glitter finishes.  While in my school days, we used the numerical Conte/Thoreau scale for lead hardness.  John Thoreau, a pencil maker, was the father of Henry David Thoreau.  The only options in my world then were the ubiquitous #2 and the lesser used  #3.  Sometime in the 80s or 90s, lead hardness , today we have moved to the numerical, H for hard, and B for black scale which allows for 20 gradations of grey to black and hardness.  HB is basically the #2 and B is the number 3.  

For me, mechanical pencils took a quantum leap forward in the late 1970s.  I was in graduate school when I got my hands on my first Pentel .5mm mechanical pencil.  It was a dream.  Pentel mechanical pencils set a new standard in precision design and manufacturing.  Their refills exhibited, to me, the highest quality in writing consistency.  Unlike the Scriptos, these new pencils were like writing with a freshly sharpened pencil all the time.  The body held several leads.  The original erasers were not the best.  They were small and did not last long.  They were also under a cap and hard to use, but in subsequent designs they started adding twist erasers that easily last the life of the pencil.  I loved the design and utility of these and have used them ever since.

I teach math and statistics courses.  I buy Zebra brand pencils at the beginning of each semester and give one to each student.  I tell them all mathematics and statistics should be done with pencils.  I ask them why and eventually someone will reply “because you can erase.”  Exactly right.  Then I ask them “What is a pencil without an eraser?”  No one gets this right.  The answer is “essentially a pen.”  Most use the pencils I give them on exams but some still use pens and end up with scratch outs when they inevitably make errors.  One of the Zebra’s variants is a mechanical pencil that looks like a yellow wooden one.  These are my favorite throw away mechanical these days.  

In googling around preparing this piece, I learned that wooden pencil sales have  increased in the past few years.  All kinds of folks are gravitating to wood pencils.  The cutting edge of this boom may well be in Hollywood where the pencil of choice is the Palomino Blackwing 602.  The pencil was originally created by Eberhard Faber 1930s  to be the best writing pencil ever due to it’s unique waxy graphite lead and flat replaceable eraser.   The pencil was the favorite of Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Stephen Sondheim, Stanley Kubrick and others once they began using it used it for all of their creative work.  Supposedly, Shamus Culhane the famous Disney animator known for the Heigh-Ho part of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was buried with on these pencils in his hand.  

Per a 2011 article in Fortune Magazine, The great Blackwing pencil brouhaha:
The Blackwing survived a change in ownership when Faber-Castell USA bought Eberhard Faber in 1988, and again in 1994, when Faber-Castell was bought by Sanford Corp., a division of Newell-Rubbermaid. But the machine that made the clips for the eraser ferrule had been broken for years and never fixed. When the Blackwing stock became exhausted in 1998, Sanford decided that its low volume -- only about 1,100 gross annually -- made repair uneconomical. With that the Blackwing died. Almost immediately, scarcity created a rush of demand by collectors. By 2001, Blackwing pencils that had originally sold for 50¢ would change hands on eBay for up to $40.
The Blackwing trademark was not renewed by Sanford, it was bought up by California Cedar Products that marketed pencils under the Palomino brand.  The company is owned Charles Berolzheimer II, a Stanford MBA and the sixth generation Berolzheimer to be in the pencil busines (think Berol writing instruments).  Berolzheimer worked to get a supplier of ferrules, improved on the graphite formulation, and changed the color of the eraser from pink to black.  They went into production in October 2010 and can be found online for $20/dozen ($1.67 a pencil).

I am thinking about buying a box and see what the fuss is all about.  Before I do that, I am going have to search high and low to find my old mechanical suction cup pencil sharpener.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Adult Diapers

The are many signs of a changing America.  We have Obama Care, the friendly debates that surround it, and the fun people are having with the website.  We have an economy that is sluggishly improving from the great recession.  The Atlanta Braves are planning to build their third stadium since they have been in Atlanta.  There are so many things changing.  Some change is for the better while other changes make us nostalgic for a simpler past.  

There is, of course, the fattening of the country.  Obesity is such a problem that the AMA has recently classified the condition as a disease.  Along with this disease comes in the way we dress and shop.  There are more stores that carry plus sizes for women and big and tall for men… emphasis on the big.  The diet industry is a growing as fast or faster than our collective waistlines.

Lately, I have noticed another kind of change.  There has been a lot of commercials for, well, adult diapers.  I was kind of surprised when I first saw that ads.  The models were definitely on the larger size and were talking about, well, seepage and the confidence that wearing whatever the incontinence product was.  OK then.  

I understand that people who have this problem need such products. The commercials, however, gave the impression that they were targeting weight related incontinence.  I just thought the incidence rate was on the smaller side.  It seems I was wrong.  The incidence rate must have increased to the point where it makes sense to advertise nationally.  Per staff, the top ten adult diaper brands in the US are are (most of which I am blissfully unaware of):

  1. Attends
  2. Tranquility
  3. Prevail
  4. Attend
  5. Tena
  6. Wings
  7. PER-FIT
  8. Dignity
  9. Select
  10. Maxi Care

In my internet search, the growth in the adult diaper market is more due to the aging population as opposed to the impression the advertising was given.  The ads I have been seen seem to be targeted at the obese as opposed to the aging.  The folks in these ads are active, up, and about.  They are worried about seepage and leakage or so I got the impression from the ads.  The diapers are available in stores.   Mail order programs seem very popular as well.  Perhaps this is to avoid having to walk through the store with such products as much as it is for convenience for those that are not active, up, and about.

The growth in adult diapers is not just in the US.  It is a global phenomena.  It is predicted that in that adult diapers will outsell baby diapers in Japan by the year 2020.  In 2005, it was estimated that there were 316 million people in the world over 70 years in age.  The same study predicted that that population segment would grow by 78% by 2025 to 563 million.  The growth in babies is only expected to be 2.9%.  It is expected that the adult incontinence market will triple in this time.  It therefore makes sense that more product development and marketing dollars will be allocated to the adult than the baby market.

As a final note, with the increased use of adult diapers, there has been an increase in cases of adult diaper rash.  Really?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Michgan State Opens Up a Can of...

Michigan State beat up, thumped, whooped, took them out behind the woodshed and flat-out beat-up the University of Michigan football team yesterday in East Lansing.  The score was 29-6.  The game was more lopsided than score indicated.  It was an old fashioned smash mouth football butt stomping. 

Michigan State has now won five of the last six years.  Bravo and congratulations to Coach Dantonio, the entire MSU football staff, the fans, and especially the Spartan players.

In the cross-state rivalry with Michigan State, they have the kind defense I want Michigan to have.  They have the kind of defense Bo Schembechler would have loved and often had during his tenure as the coach of Michigan.  This amazing defense held Michigan to a miserable -48 yards rushing and a paltry 168 total yards.  They held Michigan to just two field goals.  It was a season defining, perhaps season changing, performance perhaps for both teams which at this point seem to be going in opposite directions.

People I know are starting to question if Brady Hoke is indeed the coach to return our beloved program to the Schembechler level of performance.  This was the worst rushing performance in THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF MICHIGAN FOOTBALL.  Hoke should have been going insane on the sidelines firing up his guys.  Kudos to MSU and most definitely back to the drawing board for Michigan!  Drew Sharp, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press eloquently and bluntly stated what we are all thinking in his piece today:  Bo wouldn't recognize how soft Michigan football has become.  Indeed!

I am a die-hard Michigan fan.  But, I grew-up in the State of Michigan and I have always had two favorite college football teams.  Michigan and Michigan State.  I want and root for Michigan State to win every game they play in every sport with one exception.  When Michigan and Michigan State face each other in any sport, I simply want Michigan to prevail. 

I see a lot of fans of both Michigan and Michigan State that simply hate the other team.  My view has evolved to what I believe is more realistic.  First and foremost, there is no rivalry without the rival.  If one revels in the rivalry, one has to appreciate, on some level, the existence of the other team.  Secondly, for the rivalry to be of any quality, the win-loss percentages have to be closer to 50-50 then 70-30.

All in all, I appreciate Michigan State.  That same feeling does not extend to The Ohio State University.  The parts about the rivalry requiring a rival and that the rival needs to be close to maintain its intensity certainly apply.  But, I am no fan of OSU.  I want them to lose every game which, of course, is not likely to happen.  I often joke that when OSU plays USC I wonder if it is possible for both teams to lose... which is equally unlikely to happen.

I hope Michigan State surges and continue to improve.  They are leading the Legends Division and stand a very good chance of playing OSU, who should win the Leaders Division, for the Big Ten Championship.  As they say, the division championship is in MSU’s control.  It is their championship to lose.  Michigan, with two Big Ten losses, cannot win the Big Ten at this point.  So, I am all in for Michigan State to take the prize.  I still have hope that perhaps Michigan can beat Ohio State on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and then the week after that Michigan State beats them again.  Now that would be sweet.